Strategy Session: Leveraging flex work in a downturn

Strategy Session Flex Work

The March 2015 Strategy Session (Alberta Venture) continues the spirit of Leading through a crisis and nags you to keep on changing and progressing through an economic downturn. Especially on flex work arrangements. Which aren’t the future of work–they are the present of work. I let WORKshift‘s Robyn Bews deliver most of the killer punches.

Inside insight: I had so many ideas floating around in my head about how to structure this piece–it’s a topic that is so important to me–I managed to think myself into a place of total paralysis. Here’s how I got out:

Me: I. Can’t. Find. A. Lead. Throw random words at me. Go.

Friend: Fried. Pelican. Sandwich. Cranky. Italian. Monday. Space. Coffee. Plaid. Pyjamas.

Me: There is no space on the pelican-shaped desk for my plaid coffee mug on this Monday morning, and as a result I’m cranky and fried. Fortunately, I flex-work, so I’m just sitting around in my pyjamas eating a sandwich, listening in to a conference call. Welcome to the world of WORKshift.

I revised that lead a bit in the final. Want to read it? But of course:

Full text at Alberta Venture: Leveraging Flex Work in a Downturn

Unedited text below:

Strategy Session: Leveraging Flex-work in a downturn

By Marzena Czarnecka

Hey. I’m calling you because Sue—you know Sue? Your top-potential who’s been negotiating with you for the last few months about formalizing her flex work arrangement, getting it all down in writing? Yeah. So Sue says you’ve just sent out a memo—on paper, on less, what’s wrong with you, do you hate trees?—giving your employees the heads up that because of the current economic climate, you’re tightening the belt, buttoning down the hatches, and doing all the responsible and necessary things to ride out the storm. (Cute if tautological use of cliché metaphors, by the way—we all do it when we get stressed, of course, but hitting those three in one sentence, that took some effort. Where was I? Right.) You’re tightening your belt to ride out the storm. And Sue’s terrified this means her three-days-in-the-office, the-rest-wherever-the-hell-she-likes-so-long-as-she-gets-her-work-done arrangement is going to…

What? I see. You’re laying off two of Sue’s colleagues, and so she’s going to need to work harder—and she should be happy that she’s getting to keep her job—and you need her on the spot to ensure that she’s producing…

Oh, sweetie, sweetie. I am so disappointed. I expected better from you.

No, it’s not because I’m in Sue’s corner. Obviously, I am. I am the unabashed advocate for everyone and anyone who doesn’t want to languish in a corporate tower five days a week, who chooses to step off the “this is the way our forefathers have done it and so it shalt be” beaten bath. I am so disappointed because I thought you—being so quick-and-clever and forward-looking and all, so much more so than your competition—I expect that you would know better.

I get the tendency to react to a crisis (I’m sorry; I did promise to stop calling it a crisis, didn’t I? I guess I lied, but I promise you, I won’t call it a bust, not this time, it’s not, just a downturn) by putting a full stop on change and moving forward. Never mind that it’s stupid and costly and almost never the right thing to do: it’s the reptilian brain instinct and we all do it. Freeze! So here’s the thing. Put that plant on hold, don’t take on new office space, can the plan to redesign your logo.

But keep on bending over backwards to let Sue and her cohort work where and how they want to do it.

Here’s why. First, she’s already doing it anyway. She’s more productive—in the way you define it—in the two days out of office she spends working her way. That’s when she gets most of her work done. The time she clocks in at the tower? At least some of it’s just for show. And it’s not just her. You know this, right? It’s you too.

“Show me an executive that doesn’t workshift,” says Robyn Bews, [CEO] of Calgary-based WORKshift. “Show me an executive that comes into office at eight and punches out at five or six. That’s just not the way people work.”

But we’ve been through this before, right? (See: Remote Workforce) And you bought into it. You get the arguments for… but that was when things were good and oil was high, or at least, not in the toilet. But now…

But now, baby, it’s more important and more beneficial to you than ever. Listen—you just laid off two of Sue’s colleagues, right? Does that mean Sue is going to do less work? No, of course not: she’s going to need to do more. With less support, in a more stressful environment.

Here are the questions you should be asking yourself as you look at Sue. To quote Bews: “How do I make you happy? How do I keep you from burning out? How can I give you more respect and more control, as a professional, over your schedule?”

Here’s the answer: follow through on your flex-work arrangement with Sue! And everyone else who wants one.

Wait, I haven’t gotten to the really good part yet. You’ll appreciate this, as you tighten your belt (sweetie, by the way, it doesn’t work unless you actually lose the weight, you know what I mean?). Bews has an assignment for you. It’s, what 9:15 a.m.? Perfect. Walk through your company. And count the empty desks and offices.

Now ask yourself… why in Peter Lougheed’s name are you paying for all this empty real estate?

“In most organizations, people are already working remotely,” Bews says. “They’re working in coffee shops, at partner sites, on airplanes, at home—wherever they need to. And yet organizations continue to pay for a piece of real estate that is grossly underutilized.”

You’ve just laid off (yes, I’m going to keep on saying lay off—because you did it—and it’s a word—and it’s a fact of life in cyclical Calgary—and not talking about unpleasant things does not make them disappear, suck it up, princeling) two of Sue’s colleagues. You’re still paying for their desks… think about that.

No, I’m not telling you to sublet your space! Who’d take it now? But we’re all Albertans here. We know how this goes. As Bews puts it, “When we come back, we come back fast and we come back strong.” And then, we pay through the nose for those desks nobody uses. So be smart, baby, and do this. Ask yourself, can you use your existing footprint to accommodate more people as you grow in the future? When we’re firing on all cylinders, we don’t have time to think and reflect. Do it now. Revisit your real estate strategy. Do you need a desk for every single person in your office? Maybe what you need instead is more collaborative spaces for your people to hang out and brain storm and socialize? (Yes, some of your people only need to come into the office to socialize. You know this. I know this. How about you make that part of your planned space? Crazy, I know.)

Repeat after me, very slowly, and as many times as necessary for it to really flex in: flex work arrangement do not cost you money. They save you money.

What? But there was that one time you tried telecommuting and it was a disaster… Right. That was in 1987. And the world has changed. “We live in 2015, but we work in 1992,” says Bews. (She’s quoting a workshift meme, by the way, but we cannot find its original source). “Every other part of our lives has changed, from the way we communicate with our spouses, the way we shop, plan vacations—everything. The world has changed, and we’ve changed with it—in almost every way. Except this. Too many of us still work like we did in 1997.”

Except… we don’t, right? Not really. We work the way we have to in 2015… within the constraints of a world and a work culture created in the 1900s. Let’s stop.

So. Back to Sue. Who’s going to be stressed, overworked and under-supported. Staring at empty desks… hating you for not following through on your word… keeping her resume nice and current so as soon as the economy picks up—and you know it will—she can jump ship to someone who’ll give her that work arrangement she needs…

When you get off the phone with me, I want you to text her—no, for heaven’s sake, don’t call her, that’s so intrusive! (I’m sorry I called, by the way, but this was really important, I wanted you to hear me scream)—I want you to text her and tell her you’ll ink her flex work plan. In fact, if she thinks two days, or three mornings, at the office is all that she needs—you’re good with that. You value her. You trust her—that’s why you hired her, keep on promoting her. You know she’ll do the work. And you hope she stays with you during the batten-down-the-hatches-storm.

Thank you. Oh, I do realize you should be thanking me. I’ve totally saved your butt—let you keep Sue, who would have been out of there come first available opportunity—and possibly halved your lease costs. But you know. I do appreciate you doing the difficult thing. And moving forward. Progressing. Changing.

Even though your reptilian brain is telling you to freeze.

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at, stalked at @paddleink on Twitter, and visited at